Tag Archives: small dogs

Indignation…and new friends

The other day, we had a glaring example of how people see what they are convinced they are going to see.

Spencer and I were at a park that we haven’t been to very frequently, but I’ve started taking him there more recently. So we’re just starting to meet people and dogs.

At one point, we saw a group of 4-5 dogs and roughly the same number of owners. Spencer was watching them with stiff body language, but whining, so I wasn’t really sure if he wanted to meet them or was anxious. Given the ambiguity of his body language, I decided to be cautious.  After a few minutes of him watching them, I persuaded him to follow me in the other direction.

A few minutes later, we were isolated in the middle of a big space, with Spencer on his long lead, when I noticed the group moving in the same direction as us.

Suddenly, one of the dogs detached from the group and came running towards us. The dog, who was roughly half of Spencer’s size and maybe a bit smaller, ran straight up to him and engaged him in a wrestling hold. First, this is a very impolite way to greet an unknown dog, and second, Spencer doesn’t have any social graces, so this is pretty much how he greets other dogs, especially males. So Spencer responded in kind. Even though Spencer wasn’t doing anything that could hurt her (I don’t know for sure it was a female, but that will make the descriptors easier to keep separate), the other dog started to scream bloody murder. She detached and ran back towards he mistress who was panicking by now and yelling frantically to call her dog back.

The dog stopped about halfway to her mistress and stared at Spencer again. It was clear to everyone that she was planning another run. The mistress started running toward her dog yelling more and more frantically to try to get the dog back. To no avail.

The dog came tearing towards us. Spencer stepped behind me as the dog neared, a clear sign for me that he was afraid. Just as I was about to step forward and try to scare the other dog, whose mistress was finally catching up, Spencer took a step or two forward and woofed at the other dog. It wasn’t overly aggressive, just a forceful “go away”. The other dog was still wavering on whether to come in for direct engagement, but by this time, I saw the other woman coming in close to catch her dog, and. worried that Spencer would consider her a threat, I was trying more assertively to move him away so the woman could catch her dog without incident.

She attached the leash to her dog as I tried to sooth Spencer in a calm voice that I would protect him need be. Then I heard the woman say to her dog as they moved away, “Come on. He’s a mean dog.” My jaw literally dropped. I spent much of the next ten minutes venting my indignation to Spencer, who, frankly, wasn’t really paying attention.

Happily, for the rest of the walk, things went much better. Spencer got to meet several other dogs and more considerate owners, especially the skittish Beagle mix Elka who teased him a bit because she wanted to play but was also a bit afraid of him. I was ever so grateful to her male owner who not only kept his distance, but squatted down, so Spencer wouldn’t see him as a threat.

A bit later, we met a group of about four dogs, and I was impressed that the one that felt most confident to walk right up to Spencer and start smelling him was the smallest — a Jack Russell Terrier. I wasn’t sure how that encounter would go since Spencer’s experiences with JRTs are not all good, but they managed to negotiate the encounter without any major stress.

Overall, Spencer seems to like this park and the possibility of meeting other dogs, but we’ll have to be cautious who we say hi to.



She started it!

This article is a true story, told from Spencer’s perspective, followed by some commentary from me.

Kristen has been showing me that the world isn’t as scary as I thought. Strangers, barking dogs and buses with terrifying hydraulic brakes all make liver, chicken and cheese appear. And the closer they are, the more goodies I get! I’m still not comfortable getting too close to people I don’t know, but if Kristen shields me, I can now let people walk right past us on a narrow sidewalk, and most of the time we can walk by people, although I’ll keep my eye on them, just to be sure.

I’m also learning that I don’t need to worry about other dogs (but I’m not always convinced). A lot of times, we just walk by them, and Kristen gives me a treat so I don’t get tense. The thing is, a lot of dogs bark at me for no reason. Sometimes a dog across the street starts straining at its leash and barking aggressively when I haven’t even looked at it. Kristen says it’s because my size and my muzzle make them nervous, but it’s unfair. I don’t bark at them! If I strained at my leash like that and barked for no reason, people would say I was a mean dog. When little dogs do it, no one seems to think twice about it.

Anyway, Kristen is teaching me not to freeze when I see another dog, and it does seem to limit the frequency of them being aggressive. This morning, I got to meet a nice little dog. We were cutting through the “park” in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings, and two women were chatting with their small dogs next to them. Kristen and I started to move away, but one of the dogs was off-leash and came trotting over to say hi.

I was a little nervous, but he seemed friendly, so I didn’t mind sitting down when Kristen asked. Sitting is a way to let the other dog know that I don’t mind him coming closer. At the last minute, I did get a little overexcited and jumped towards him, which I’m not supposed to do, but he didn’t seem to mind and then we were able to great each other calmly. And then he started playing with me! I was happy.

His mistress came over and said something to Kristen, but she was moving slowly and calmly and didn’t come too close, so I didn’t mind. Kristen asked me to move away from them, and I tried, but the other little dog kept following us because he wanted to play. Finally, he disengaged and trotted away. The woman turned away.

Suddenly, my new friend came running over again after checking in with the other little dog. And then, for no reason, the woman veered towards us and charged while yelling angrily! I didn’t know why she was being so aggressive, but I was scared and lunged back and started barking, “Go away! What did I do to you? Back off!”

She backed off, and my new friend left too. I realized Kristen didn’t seem worried and was asking me calmly to come back to her. I stopped barking and turned to her. We moved a few feet away and then she told me that she understood I had been scared but was glad that I had stopped barking and lunging. Because she wasn’t worried, I calmed down right away, and we didn’t have any problems for the rest of the walk.

There are a couple of points that I’d like to stress from this story:

  • If you’re going to have your dog off-leash, please make sure that s/he comes when called.
  • There is a reason my dog is muzzled and leashed and that we move away from you. Please respect our space.
  • If your dog does come over to us, remember that since my dog is muzzled and leash, there’s very little harm he can do to yours. At this point, best just to let the dogs be unless you actually see your dog being in some mortal danger.
  • Calling your dog back in an angry voice isn’t compelling. When your mother called you in a stern voice, did you think, “Yippee! Can’t wait to go find out what Mom wants!”? Or did you drag your feet trying to delay the confrontation as much as possible? If you want your dog to always come back, practice calling him or her in a happy voice and rewarding him with a treat for obeying. We’ve done this with Spencer, and he’ll now even stop barking at something in the yard and come running into the house because he knows that coming back in is the more enjoyable option.
  • It is entirely possible that the woman in this story thinks that Spencer lunged at her “out of the blue”. After all, she’d been near him for several minutes, and he’d been calm (even surprisingly relaxed). But, in fact, he had reacted to a perceived menace. She knew she was yelling at her own dog, but Spencer didn’t. From his perspective, she was threatening him, and he didn’t have to think twice before his self-protection instincts kicked in.
  • Finally, the leash holder’s reaction can make a world of difference. If I had yelled at Spencer angrily, it just would have fed his tension. It’s an incredibly hard exercise in Zen, but learning to gently reel the dog in makes a huge difference in the duration of episodes and in the dog’s ability to recover quickly. I can’t tell you how hard this has been to learn. The good news is that it serves me in my relations with other human beings too. I think this is the lesson of “turning the other cheek”; you can either contribute to the vicious circle as emotions spiral out of control, or you can try to short circuit it.

24 pretty good hours

The past day has been happy, and I just want to share. Yesterday afternoon, we met Soca and Anne-Claire for a walk in the woods. Spencer and I were there early enough that he was already on his long lead by the time Soca showed up, so they could play together from the get-go without Spencer being frustrated by being on a leash. They played really hard, running all over like maniacs, jumping in muddy ponds and playing chase behind trees. Spencer let Anne-Claire feed him cheese twice during the walk. And he was really good with other people and dogs going by. The only sour note of the whole afternoon (which was sunny and unseasonably warm) was while we were waiting and some horses went by, setting Spencer into a frenzy, even though they were at what used to be a safe distance. Soca wore Spencer out so much that he’s been sleeping most of the day. I figured the fact he was so calm would be useful because he had a vet’s appointment for his annual check-up and a vaccine. I left early enough to take him around the park first. There were a zillion people since it was a late Friday afternoon with the gorgeous weather I mentioned earlier. It was particularly crowded because they’re doing some major construction (uncanalizing the underground river) and most of the park is actually closed. Spencer navigated it all really well and then we reached a small open lawn in the middle. We had to cross the lawn, which was a challenge since there were people pretty much everywhere, and in the middle was a very small dog that caught Spencer’s attention. He stopped, which had me slightly worried since there was a family coming up behind us with some kids on kick-scooters. But then he did something that completely surprised me. He sat down to watch the small dog and then very deliberately laid down. These are calming signals that dogs use to communicate non-threatening intentions. The little dog came over, there was some sniffing, and then they started to play chase, which was a challenge since Spencer was on a short leash and there were still loads of people around. The small dog kept being a little coy, but Spencer kept sitting and laying down. I was so proud of him because he usually can’t control his excitement well enough to perform calming signals. Finally, the little dog left, and I was able to convince Spencer to head toward the vet’s office. Once there, he was great. He got right up on the scale on command and sat there immobile while I weighed him. While he was nervous in the waiting room, he did a good job containing it, even though lots of people came in. When the vet finally came to get us, he walked right past a complete stranger. And then he was quite calm around the vet, letting her examine him, and he didn’t even flinch when she gave him his shot. Getting out of there was a challenge because the door is right next to the reception desk, and loads of people were coming in. But Spencer was great. I asked him to step behind the door, sit and let people go by. The only tiny, wee slip-up was when we left. He burst out the door, totally frustrated by how long it took us to finish at the reception, and there was a woman practically right in front of him. He barked at her, but it was really just frustration because as soon as I steered him around her, he totally forgot her, and then he paid no attention to the other two women right behind her.

Our threshold has moved

As Spencer started to show significant progress this past winter and spring, we made the resolution to use this summer to socialize him as much as possible. It’s easier in summer because the days are longer, providing better conditions for walks, and we can have visitors in the garden, which is less stressful for both the people and the dog.

Based on the results, I’d say it’s paying off immensely. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating by saying that Spencer is making progress everyday. There are many signs: Continue reading

Chihuahua attack

When you have a reactive dog, you are more preoccupied about how your dog is going to react to the world around him than the contrary. On our walks, I am generally on the lookout for possible triggers and monitoring Spencer’s state to make sure he’s checking things out in a relaxed manner and not having his stress levels build to the point of a possible eruption. All the more reason we were caught off guard this morning by an attack from an unexpected source.

Continue reading


A few days ago, Spencer and I took our first solo walk in the woods — without Soca or Sherlock — in a long time. There weren’t many people around, and Spencer was supremely relaxed, so I had him on the long lead for most of the walk. At one point in time, we neared a major crossing, so I asked him to sit and wait for me while I caught up with him and put him on the short leash to have greater control over the situation while we crossed potentially near others.

Just as I reached him, I heard a man bellow, “Get back here!” I glanced up and saw a Jack Russell Terriers had just turned down the path towards us. Some of you may know or remember that Spencer doesn’t have a great history with JRTs. His social ineptitude and their high-strung nature is generally a bad mix.

I quickly clipped the short leash onto the harness and looked up to see that the JRT had already reached us, as the owner said, “Oh great. And it’s a big one.” I feared my nightmare scenario, where an angry owner comes charging up to us to fetch his dog and sets off Spencer’s defensive reactivity.

The dogs said a very polite and quick hello: a nose touch or two, circling the bodies and then the JRT went trotting off to catch up with his people, who, thankfully, had not come for him. It was a perfect encounter for Spencer — just enough contact to satisfy his curiosity without it being long enough for him to be socially awkward and jump on the other dog.

As the JRT reached his master, I heard him say to the dog, “You’re lucky he was nice.” I couldn’t help chuckling to myself and reflecting how we label people and animals as “being” one thing or another. Had he provoked a reaction from Spencer, I’m sure he would have a totally different opinion about how Spencer “is”!